Naval Air: Full Speed Ahead For Silicon Aviators


February 8, 2010; The U.S. Navy has sped up its efforts to ready its X-47B UCAS (Unmanned Combat Aerial System), for carrier operations. This includes an additional $2 billion for development, in an attempt to have the X-47B demonstrating the ability to regularly operate from a carrier, and perform combat (including reconnaissance and surveillance) operations, within five years. Senior admirals see this as a way to solve several problems. One is the dominance of the U.S. Air Force in UAV operations (with their fleet of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk UAVs). Then there is the growing cost of the new F-35, that is supposed to replace older F-18s on carriers and U.S. Marine Corps squadrons. If the X-47B, and similar UAVs, can be developed quickly, and cheaply, enough, they could be purchased, instead of much more expensive F-35s, by the end of the decade.

The X-47B is being put together using, literally, some proven components. This includes the tail hook from the retired F-14, the same tires used on the retired S-3, the brakes used on the F-18 and generators used in the F-22. The X-47B weighs the same as the F-18. The navy plans to use the X-47B for reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting. But it also has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. Many naval officers believe that eventually, once it proves it can operate off a carrier, the X-47B will be used for a lot of bombing. Sort of a super-Predator. The navy has been impressed with the success of the Predator. The much larger, 15 ton, X-47B has a wingspan of 62 feet (whose outer 15 foot portions fold up to save space on the carrier). It uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15.

Many naval aviators have noted how a few UAVs can maintain 24/7 observation over a lot of real estate. That's persistent observation, and it is a big advantage in combat. The submarine and surface warfare communities in the navy are eager to get more of that. The marines were already seeing persistence in action, when they served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The submariners liked the idea of long range, persistent, UAVs scouting way ahead for them, via a one-way UAV that could be launched from a torpedo tube. Suddenly, with UAVs, there are all manner of new possibilities. But it was the carrier community that finally saw the future. The persistent, much longer ranged, UAVs can keep carriers safer, and enable carrier aviation to strike targets much farther away.

A year ago, the U.S. Navy rolled out the X-47B, its first combat UAV (also known as a  UCAS). This was part of a six year long, $636 million contract to build and test two X-47B aircraft. The test program calls for first flight this year, and first carrier operations by next year. The navy believes that, with aerial refueling, a X-47B can stay aloft for fifty hours. With internal fuel, it can go 2,700 kilometers and return to its carrier. This greatly expands the reconnaissance capability of a carrier.

Six years ago, the X-47A UCAS made its first flight. Development of this aircraft began in 2001. The Air Force was also testing the X-45 UCAS, which also had a naval version (the X-46). The X-45 program began in 1999, and the eight ton (max takeoff weight, with two ton payload) aircraft was ready for operational tests in 2006. The X-46 has a different wing layout, and a range of 1,100 kilometers, carrying a payload of two tons. The X-47A also has a two ton payload and a range of 1,600 kilometers. Unlike the X-45, which is built to be stored for long periods, the X-47A was built for sustained use aboard a carrier. All of these aircraft are very stealthy and can operate completely on their own (including landing and takeoff, under software control). The UCASs would also be used for dangerous missions, like destroying enemy air defenses, and reconnaissance where enemy air defenses were strong.

The navy has developed auto-pilot software for landing the X-47B on a carrier. In over 10,000 simulations, under a wide variety of sea and wind conditions, the software has never failed to get the X-47B safely down. This is the same simulation software used to test changes to manned aircraft, and has proven very realistic in predicting the performance of the F-18. The navy is confident that the X-47B will be successfully taking off and landing on carriers by next year.

The air force and navy have always differed about the widespread use of UAVs in combat. When the air force agreed to work with the navy on UCAS's a decade ago, they idea was that the air force ones would largely remain in storage, to provide a rapid "surge" capability in wartime. The navy, however, wanted to use theirs to replace manned aircraft on carriers. The reason was simple; carrier ops are dangerous, and carrier qualified pilots are more difficult and expensive to train, and retain in the service. The navy still has these problems, and senior admirals are pretty much in agreement that UCAS's are the future of carrier aviation. The sooner these UCASs prove they can safely and effectively operate from carriers, the better. The X-47B (or planned, slightly larger, X-47C) is not the definitive carrier UCAS, but the navy hopes it is good enough to show that unmanned aircraft can do the job. Normally, "X" class aircraft are just used as technology demonstators. But the X-47 program has been going on for so long, and has incorporated so much from UAVs already serving in combat, that the X-47B may end up eventually running recon and bombing missions.




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